The second test flight of Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable prototype space station will be set back two months, due to delays in recertifying the Russian booster rocket that is slated to carry it into orbit.
Over the past couple of months, Bigelow had signaled informally that the launch wouldn't take place in late January as originally scheduled, and on Monday the Las Vegas-based company released a statement confirming that April 1 was the new target date.
“Unfortunately, we have recently received notification from our launch provider, ISC Kosmotras, that the launch of Genesis 2 will be delayed by at least 60 days.” the company's founder, real-estate magnate Robert Bigelow, said in the written statement.
Kosmotras, a small Moscow-based space launch services provider, has been converting Soviet-era SS-18 military missiles into small satellite launchers by adding a Ukrainian-built third stage provided by the original missile plant, the Yuzhnoye firm.
The resulting carrier rocket — named Dnepr, after the Ukrainian river near the rocket factory — has been used for several commercial launches since 1999, including last June's launch of Bigelow’s first spacecraft, Genesis 1. That payload was successfully delivered into orbit, has sent back scores of images and is now undergoing long-term testing, exceeding even Bigelow's expectations.
However, one month after Bigelow's launch, a Dnepr booster carrying a collection of small scientific satellites failed early in its ascent from Russia's Baikonur spaceport in now-independent Kazakhstan. The rocket and much of its unburned toxic propellants fell to Earth in a sparsely populated area south of the launch site.
Thorough environmental checks, as well as medical exams for the local population, established that no one was injured by the launch accident. Russian officials said a significant cleanup effort around the crater caused by the rocket's impact minimized environmental damage.
“Since that time,” Bigelow said, “Kosmotras engineers, as well as their Ukrainian partners at Yuzhnoye, have conducted a thorough analysis of the Dnepr launch vehicle. The Kosmotras/Yuzhnoye team have successfully identified, evaluated and resolved the problem that caused the failure.”
In December, a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Space Agency announced that an investigation board had completed its work successfully, but that the details would not be released because of military security. The missile remains on active combat duty at several bases in Russia.
Slideshow: Planetary pleasures Some Kosmotras customers were privately advised that the cause of the failure was a manufacturing error that occurred when the rocket involved in July's accident was built, back in the 1980s. There was a defect in the thermal insulation installed on a hydrazine propellant line that fed a turbopump which in turn provided hydraulic power to swivel one of the first-stage engine chambers. As a result, the propellant was boiling when it reached the turbopump, causing the pump to operate in a jerky fashion that prevented smooth steering.
There was no design issue here — about 160 missiles of this design have been test-fired over the past 30 years. Rather, the fix involved inspecting the insulation on all hydrazine lines on all missiles of the type, both those on active military duty and those converted for commercial space launches.
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Even though the Russians declared the case closed, and even though they agreed to a $1 million damage settlement, the Kazakh government has been reluctant to rescind its post-crash ban on new launches from Baikonur. Last week, the Kazakh official in charge of reviewing the investigation, Murat Nurgazhin, told journalists in Astana that launches would be allowed but that the prohibition was not yet "officially" lifted.
The complications in Kazakhstan don't have a direct impact on Bigelow's plans, because Genesis 2 — like Genesis 1 — would lift off from a military base on Russian soil in southwest Siberia, just across the border from Kazakhstan. In fact, an SS-18 missile was successfully launched from that base last month as part of the military's program for crew training and missile testing.
Instead, Genesis 2 is being delayed due to an indirect impact: The Bigelow mission is third in line behind two other Kosmotras missions, one involving the launch of Egypt's first reconnaissance satellite and the other involving a German military satellite. Both those missions are in advanced stages of readiness at the Baikonur base in Kazakhstan — and the delays in those launches have had a domino effect on Genesis 2.
Genesis 2 is due to carry an assortment of personal items for paying customers, as well as a complement of cameras designed to send down images of those items floating in orbit.
“Naturally, we are all disappointed,” Bigelow said, “because the spacecraft was and is ready to ship out to meet the original Jan. 30 launch date. Currently, our spacecraft is awaiting shipment to Russia with all your photos and personal items, etc., onboard. We now expect to ship the spacecraft for flight sometime in the early part of March for a launch on or about April 1.”